UK supermarket chain Tesco has accused some of the country's biggest spirits firms of "ripping off consumers", while defending its decision to import cheap whisky and rum from continental Europe, instead of buying direct from the UK-based companies.

A Tesco spokesperson today confirmed that a special grey-market team of buyers was operating in Europe, buying and importing in unmarked lorries cases of The Famous Grouse and Teachers whisky and Bacardi rum.

The move, the spokesperson said, comes after the producers of the brands, Highland Distillers, Allied Domecq and Bacardi-Martini, refused to sell to the UK retailer at the prices it was offering continental retailers.

"Our grey market team started in clothes and has moved into other sectors including spirits," said the spokesperson. "The issue of price was raised with the producers but nothing was done, so we have gone to wholesalers in the continent. We pay the duty and the transport costs and still it works out cheaper."

Karen Prentice, the spokesperson for the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) said: "If Tesco is really committed to reducing the price of whisky it is aiming at the wrong target. The price of Scotch in the UK is largely determined by the Chancellor and the retailer.

"Margins are very tight at the moment so this comes as some surprise," she continued.

Highland Distillers, owner of The Famous Grouse, and Allied Domecq, who owns Teachers, said they had nothing more to add on the subject than what the SWA had already stated. Bacardi-Martini was unavailable to comment.

However, Tesco said: "We are talking about wholesaler prices before tax. Tax is important but it is not a subject to hide behind."

Tesco said that it would be able to sell the spirits at £1 a bottle cheaper.

The retailer's spirit buyer Alan Beardsley is reported as saying: "Some distillers seem to believe that low spirits prices are fine in Europe but not for Britain. We believe these big distillers are ripping off customers and so we have decided to do something about it. We want them to lower their UK prices now."

Chris Brook-Carter